The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman
Jeffreys, summing up at the trial the character of the evidence against him, declared that hardly a line of the Discourses was not treasonable in itself. 'This book,' he said, 'contains all the malice, and revenge and treason that mankind can be guilty of; it fixes the sole power in the Parliament and the people.'
Sidney had devoted a great pan of his work, in fact, to explaining his belief that rebellion was often necessary, and could effect improvement. He was prepared to illustrate the benefits so obtained from the history of the Romans and very many peoples since. Rebellion and freedom were linked in his mind. Men might rebel, indeed have a duty to rebel, whenever their liberties were threatened or attacked. Every man might kill a tyrant; anyone who has the virtue and the power to save the people need never want a right of doing it. Swords were given men that none might be slaves. He entirely disagreed with the idea that civil war was a disease; nothing whatever in the nature of monarchy or any government obliged men to bear them when tyrannical.
Free men who had overthrown tyranny and who had government of their own choosing were stronger than any others. The triumphs of the Roman republicans before luxury corrupted government and sapped their ancient energies, the victory of the free Germans, the successes of the Scots and the English against the Smarts and against the foreign foes of the Republic, were noted by him as proof of the superiority of free states to any others. Sidney's attitude was extremely warlike. The test of good government in his eyes was its success in war. By war he not only meant war against oppression, foreign or domestic; he also meant war against another state. The best government to Sidney was the government which most effectively prepared the country for military exploits. When Capel Lofft, a late eighteenth-century radical, was annotating his copy of Sidney with lavish evidence of approval and admiration, it was this passage about the state and war to which he took exception.
On December 7, 1683, Sidney gave to the sheriff on the scaffold, as was customary, a paper concerning himself. In it he was able to put succinctly in a few paragraphs the gist of what, in the printed Discourses, runs to several hundred folio pages. 'I am,' he wrote, 'persuaded to believe that God has left nations the liberty of setting up such governments as best please themselves'; that magistrates were set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honour or glory of magistrates; that the right and power of magistrates in every country must be that which the laws of that country had made it; that oaths taken to observe those laws had the force of contract and could not be violated without dissolving the whole fabric. The king's most dangerous enemies were those who encouraged him to claim or exercise exorbitant powers. Only a corrupt and lazy people had ever given away their fundamental rights to be governed well. It was, indeed, doubtful whether such a right could be given or taken away. Neither conquest nor the submission of a grateful people could bestow power on the ruler which he could not justly exercise. When Sidney received sentence he cried out that this was an age which made truth pass for treason. Among his dying words was an entreaty to Almighty God:
Grant that I may die Glorifying Thee for all Thy mercies; and that at the last Thou hast permitted me to be singled out as a Witness of thy Truth; and even by the Confession of my Opposers, for that OLD CAUSE [that is to say of liberty against tyrants] in which I was from my Youth engaged; and for which thou hast Often and Wonderfully declared thyself.Perhaps Sidney's evocation of divine approval for his cause was ultimately to have more effect than that of those who declared monarchy to have divine right. If one may judge by the event, God supported claims to revolutionary right rather than the hereditary rights of Stuarts, Bourbons or others.
Sidney's work and his legend remained for long sacred to revolutionaries wherever they might be and however good or bad their causes might be. Some of his other ideas are worth comment, though he is never constructive as Neville is. He was not particularly interested in the relations of empire and property although he likewise noticed the changing social pattern of the last century and a half. In this connection what is chiefly noticeable is his nostalgia for the medieval world in which master and man, landlord and tenant, formed a Gothic balance. As he described it, one wonders whether he did not really, in spite of his advocacy of change, think that the best times were in the past. On the other hand, he was said to know more history and more about governments of all kinds than any of his contemporaries.
On the whole, the study of history led Sidney into a belief in the necessity for constant change in government, as in clothes, in technology and so forth. We did not need to cling to the style of garment which Adam wore nor to such political institutions as may have existed in his family, nor need we protect ourselves with bows and arrows. Times changed and with them institutions. Moreover, Sidney suggested that different kinds of men and varying climates demanded differences in their political systems. These differences, of course, would not in any way weaken those fundamental laws of nature which our reason readily discovered. Sidney perpetually reminded his readers not only of the importance of politics but of the difficulty of mastering its science. Only the wise and understanding could frame good governments. There was no universal pattern any more than there was a panacea for all distempers. Law must suit present exigencies. It must follow reason, nature, really common sense; obviously no one should live under a bad government or one that was deteriorating and failed to provide for current needs.
Experiment would be necessary to discover the best government. Good governments of the past should inspire faith only in fools, although their study would more readily enable the serious student to deal with current problems. Furthermore, the student of politics would have to weigh one set of imperfections against another. Parliament might be vicious and popular governments corrupt but if one had to choose, even the anarchy—which states ruled by imperfect popular institutions might suffer—was bound to be preferable to tyranny. A tyrant could not be restrained by law, nor could his heir be rejected for stupidity or failure. Sidney felt that popular governments in the long run would reform themselves if enough men interested themselves in public affairs.
Sidney's work continued to be read with care right down to the days of the French Revolution. His reputation rather increased than lessened as the eighteenth century wore on, in spite of the revelations of Dalrymple about the payments made to him and other Whigs by the French king. At the moment when these documents were published, Scotland was associated in the minds of those most likely to admire Sidney, with Toryism and with all sorts of nefarious schemes to undermine the British constitution. Dalrymple's charges, although amply documented, were discounted as the work of one hostile to all that Sidney stood for. During the American Revolution Sidney's Discourses was more of a Bible to the revolutionaries than any of the other works of his century, Milton only excepted.